I ALWAYS SYMPATHIZE WITH PEOPLE
WHO RUSH UP to me asking, "What's a hagiologist and is that
how it's pronounced?" The first time I heard myself so described
at a public meeting, I was confused, wondering what strange avocation
had been thrust on me. I had to find out from a dictionary that
the word means a writer of saints' lives.
I did not grow up with the
ambition to be a writer, still less a hagiologist. Whatever equipment
is supposed to be necessary for such a career, I was sure I hadn't
it. When I left the convent school in my native Tralee, I took
a modest secretarial job. After a couple of years, I went to
Milan, still in a secretarial job, now perhaps not quite so modest.
I was twenty, harrowed by loneliness, with nowhere to go and
nothing to do on the long summer evenings. They had told me in
the office that my salary would be increased when I was competent
in Italian, so I began to read books in the language in order
to hasten the day. With a mercenary rather than a cultural motive,
I began to explore library facilities. One evening, my eye ran
along a reading-room shelf where were displayed six volumes of
the letters of St. Catherine of Siena, labeled Epistolario. I
opened one of the series at random and my attention was immediately
captured by a letter from the saint to the reigning pope. With
extraordinary familiarity she addressed him as Dear Little Babbo,
and then told him to be a man and not a coward! From that moment
I was committed; my feet were set on a path which I could not
leave again even if I wanted to. The letters were fascinating:
the forceful phrasing, the direct hitting, the genuineness of
that devotion poured over and over again in a torrent of colorful
apostrophe. I read through every page of the six volumes, copying
into a notebook the passages that particularly appealed to me.
For the first time in my life, I was studying for the sheer love
of it. I passed from the Letters to the Lives. Among
that huge mass of reading were great books that praised her,
others that by their insufficiency belittled her, others that
unconsciously misrepresented her, and books that were even calumnious.
But nearly all the reading left me with an empty sense of dissatisfaction.
Nothing that I read corresponded with my own inner perception
of her singularity: I did not find in the books about her the
radiance of that unchanging gaiety expressed in her letters,
nor the strong comfort of her unending endurance. Then I began
to read the history of the fourteenth century in Italy. I had
solved the problem of my empty evenings. The same personage dominated
my reading for several years. I filled many notebooks. But still
it never occurred to me that I would ever make any use of those
Then I was transferred to the
Liverpool branch of the same firm in which I held a secretarial
post. In that northern English city, I joined the Catholic Evidence
Guild and there met Frank 3. Sheed, who was very active in the
same work. When he married Maisie Ward, another Guild member,
shortly afterwards (in 1926), they founded the publishing firm
of Sheed & Ward. But they continued their work for the Catholic
Evidence Guild and they often discussed their publishing problems
over cups of coffee with Guild speakers after street-corner meetings.
One of Sheed & Ward's first ventures was a series of saints'
lives by Henri Ghéon, Rev. C. C. Martindale, S.J., and
others. The Sheeds wanted lives that showed the saints as human
beings with the grace of God working on their troublesome human
nature. They did not want the old type of life, insipid and unreadable,
in which truth was sacrificed to "edification;' depicting
the saint as unreal and unattractive. In those cafeteria sessions,
the Sheeds would talk with the eloquence for which they are famous
and we others would listen. They had difficulty in finding writers
and themes. One evening they were explaining to us that not all
saints, for one reason or another, really lent themselves to
the modern biographical mould. Suddenly the contents of those
notebooks, unopened for years, rose up in my mind. "St.
Catherine of Siena would," I eagerly interposed. I began
to talk and found it very difficult to bring myself to a halt.
"You should write about her," they told me.
Some time later I was living
in Ireland again and had leisure enough to follow their counsel.
Like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena needs a new
interpretation in every age. She has a sense of humour and--all
unwittingly-I had been marked down. She and I settled down to
a kind of wrestling match. Not a scholar myself, I nevertheless
chewed through the hard rind of scholarship to arrive at more
exact knowledge of her problems. I was not devout, yet I had
to address myself to the study of mysticism. I was no writer.
These are but indications of some of the many hurdles that had
to be crossed at her compulsion. She is the theme of an enormous
literature in all languages, a sort of tower in which my book
is like only one little brick. Yet to have placed that little
brick in position gave a new meaning to life.
I remember with what trepidation
I waited for the reviews. When the kindly critic in the London
Observer hailed my book as "a masterpiece of literary
art and historical criticism," I found that I was actually
launched as a writer. I cannot say that I enjoyed the resultant
publicity. To me it was an uncomfortable experience, loosing
upon me as it did an avalanche of admirable people, chiefly nuns
and priests, or laity acting upon their behalf, who wrote, or
called, or seized me in the street or at functions, in order
to persuade me against my own judgment to write the life of some
personage in religion, of whom--they invariably added--no adequate
life had ever been written.
I found myself in a world of
religious orders all owing a long-overdue debt to their founders
in the shape of a life. I discovered for the first time
how many nuns and monks take a name in religion simply because
they like the sound of it. Then, in their more mature years,
they want to become more closely acquainted with the personage
whose name they bear-and they marked me down to supply the need.
I had to live by my pen and
soon found editors joining forces with my well-meaning persecutors.
A literary career seemed assured so long as I obeyed the stipulation,
"Something on the saints." I mean no impiety when I
say that the saints were around my neck like a millstone. There
seemed to be no escape. How often have I not seen that pitying
smile of disbelief spread over the editorial visage when I suggested
myself for some other theme and I would hear the murmur, "Saints
are your line, you know, better stick to one's genre." This
obsession that the writer succeeds only by rigid specialization
is evidence of the artistic poverty of our time. Separation of
the arts is a symbol of weakness and decay. Nowadays a poet is
hardly expected to venture on prose. But that a writer should
be labeled with a theme and expected never to deviate from it
is surely the last stage of artistic poverty before complete
I held out against the tide,
however, and my second book was A Recall to Dante (Macmillan,
1932), whom I had also studied during my nearly four years residence
in Italy. My book is an easy approach, a sort of "Dante
without tears." Father Calvert Alexander, S.J., in his book
The Catholic Literary Revival (Bruce, 1935) was kind enough
to describe it as "one of the few really helpful books on
the Florentine we have had by Englishspeaking Catholics."
Afterwards I tried "straight biography with a Life of
Patrick Sarsfield before returning again to hagiology with
lives of St. Brigid of Ireland and St. Anthony of Padua.
Then I tried a novel with House of Cards, and essays
in the volume Borne on the Wind.
It was at about this stage
of my writing career (1935) that I married a farmer, Stephen
Rynne. On hearing the news, the Most Rev. Paschal Robinson, O.F.M.,
then Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland, said, "What a pity! That's
the end of the writing." On the other hand, Stephen's farmer
friends said, "Remember what I'm telling you: that finishes
the farming." But they were all wrong. Stephen became a
writer and I became a farmer. Since then we both write and we
both farm. Stephen Rynne has become a well-known journalist and
Radio Eireann broadcaster and is the author of three books: Green
Fields, All Ireland, and The Vision of Father Hayes. We
have two sons and two daughters. We have remained always in the
original home in which we began married life: a Georgian mansion
in north Kildare which was once a bad landlord's stronghold,
where we live in the midst of great, trees and quiet fields.
When the children were small,
I concentrated again on purely Irish themes: Lough Derg, which
gives the history of one of the oldest traditional Irish pilgrimages;
and The Trial of Oliver Plunkett, mainly a legal appraisement
dealing with a seventeenth century Irish martyr.
As a writer, I found that the
training as a speaker I had received in the Liverpool Catholic
Evidence Guild stood me in good stead. I remember speaking in
one of the principal theatres of Dublin a couple of years after
the appearance of my first book and once again finding myself
committed to a road I had never really intended to travel. This
road led me in the nineteenfifties on three extensive lecture
tours of the United States, two of them transAmerican.
Like so many other writers,
I was induced to commit myself to the phantasmagoria of rocking
in planes, swaying in diesel trains, or speeding over highways
in highpowered automobiles to declaim my views on literature,
on Ireland, or even on world affairs. There were months when
I would hear in my sleep the introductory formula "Our Speaker
Tonight," or I would quail again before the admonitions
of the lecture agent when I had missed that train, or plane.
I would stay awake over the problem why programme chairwomen
are always so nervous and Madam Presidents so formidable. A programme
chairwoman in Boston once pounced on me in the lobby of a convent
retreat house saying "I am Alice Curtayne . . . ."
Once, when nearing the end of my talk, I used the age-honoured
formula "If I am not exceeding my time... ", expecting
the usual smiles of reassurance. But instead, Madam President
icily interjected, "Remember that every woman here has to
get home in time to prepare her husband's dinner."
On a lecture tour, the ego
gets a battering that should show good results in Christian formation.
The first letters of invitation are couched in terms of ingratiating
deference, and the advance publicity boosts the speaker to the
very zenith of competence and charm. The subject of the eulogies
is naturally elated, even if she has difficulty in recognizing
herself. But there is an obverse side of the medal: the same
people prepared to listen with such rapture are ready to forget
with equally amazing rapidity. I remember the principal speaker
at a banquet of a certain International Women's Congress. As
I waited in the anteroom for the ceremonial procession to the
principal table, I was surrounded with worried officials all
intent on whittling down my speaking time. The contract with
the agent had said fifty minutes, but they urged, "make
it forty; no, better thirty-five, otherwise there wouldn't be
time for . . . ." They had thrust into my hand a sheaf of
press clippings in which I was glowingly described, but now it
seemed that brevity was the greatest favour I could confer on
all concerned. I had traveled five hundred miles to the venue
and as we finally sat at the table, I was told, "About half
an hour, not more." I got the impression that if I made
it twenty minutes, I would be really helpful. As I speeded away
from that city the following morning, I knew how good it was
for my ego to realize that probably to the thousands who attended
that banquet, I had already ceased to exist.
But writers will continue to
flock to the United States as to the Mecca of opportunity and
for an unrivaled stimulus to their efforts. Nowhere else in the
world is the writer enfolded in quite the same genial, tolerant,
and immensely kind encouragement, a mental environment that is
remembered and honoured in the heart forever. It was in America
I was persuaded in a certain college library to turn my attention
to books for juveniles, and as a result I wrote Twenty Tales
of Irish Saints and More Tales of Irish Saints.
The most thrilling assignment
in my life reached me in 1958 when I was asked to give a course
on Irish history and literature under the Medora A. Feehan lectureship,
sponsored by Bishop John J. Wright, then Ordinary of the Worcester
diocese, but since promoted to the diocese of Pittsburgh. I gave
this course in the spring of 1959 at the Anna Maria College,
Paxton, Massachusetts, where an honorary degree of Doctor of
Humane Letters was conferred on me. During the same period, I
repeated the course at the Cardinal Cushing College, Boston.
Many of the students in both colleges were of IrishAmerican descent
and our work together gave me an insight into the mind of the
Irish in America. My latest book, The Irish Story (Kenedy,
1960), was inspired by and is the fruit of that valuable experience.
published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig,
Sixth Series, 1960.